Lack of research has led the press to treat documents that have been public for 40 years as breaking news.
Earlier this week, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) released over a thousand pages of documents relating to one of the most horrific events of the Second World War: the massacre of thousands of Polish military officers and other leading Polish elites by the Soviet Secret Police in May and June 1940. The victims—who today are estimated to number just under 22,000—were captured by the Red Army in the fall of 1939, when the Soviet Union, under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, invaded eastern Poland just weeks after the Nazi war machine launched the attack on Poland that initiated the Second World War. The Poles were secretly murdered on the order of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Politburo in a brutal effort to eliminate any opposition to Soviet rule.
According to widespread press reports, the recently released documents provide “new evidence” that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill—who only learned of the crime after the mass graves containing the bodies of the murdered Poles were found by the Germans in April of 1943—“hushed up” Soviet guilt for the crime out of fear that revealing the truth would damage their delicate wartime relationship with Joseph Stalin.
This basic assessment of what happened in the spring of 1943 is correct. Both Roosevelt and Churchill were most anxious to avoid doing anything at that moment—when the Allies had yet to launch a Second Front in Europe—that might lead to a breakdown in the critical wartime alliance with the Soviets. It is also true that by the summer of 1943, the widespread initial suspicion that the Nazis had committed the atrocity and were merely using it as a propaganda tool against the Allies had given way to the view that the Soviets may indeed have been guilty of the crime. It is with respect to the latter point that the release of the documents provides the most important “new evidence.” Here, the fact that two American POWs who were taken to the site of the graves by the Nazis were able to send coded messages back to U.S. military intelligence in the summer of 1943 is significant. For their report that the Nazi allegations in their opinion were “substantially correct” provides additional evidence that the U.S. government was in possession of credible information about Soviet guilt within a few months of the discovery of the massacre.
But the notion that this represents a major “new discovery” bolstered by other “new evidence” that the NARA release has provided is something of an exaggeration. Many recent press accounts, for example, report that the released documents include “secret” communications between Churchill and Roosevelt which show the determination of the two leaders not to let the charges of Soviet guilt by the Nazis and by the Polish government-in-exile disrupt the wartime alliance with Stalin. The implication is that this is new information, but the wartime communication between Churchill and Roosevelt was declassified in 1972, and has been freely available to scholars at the FDR Presidential Library ever since. It has also been published, most notably in Warren F. Kimball’s Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, which first came out in 1984.
Moreover, the specific exchanges between Roosevelt and Stalin that the press has reported as “new” have also been available for decades. Like the Roosevelt-Churchill correspondence, these documents were also declassified and released at the FDR Presidential Library in 1972, and some of them were available much earlier. The April 26 exchange between FDR and Stalin, for example, was first published in 1963 as part of the widely used State Department series Foreign Relations of the United States Diplomatic Papers. Most significant, however, is the claim by the BBC and other news outlets that “among the new evidence” is a report written by Owen O’Malley, the British Ambassador to the Polish-government-in-exile, which Churchill sent to Roosevelt on August 13, 1943. In this report, O’Malley notes “there is now available a good deal of negative evidence, the cumulative effect of which is to throw serious doubt on Russian disclaimers of responsibility for the massacre.” Again, the implication is that this is a major new revelation that changes our understanding of this tragic episode, when in fact this document, like others just mentioned, has been available at the FDR library since the early 1970s and is also published in Kimball’s Complete Correspondence.
What is unsettling here is the unfiltered and unsophisticated manner in which serious news organizations reported this story. It appears that the wartime files released by the National Archives in Washington contain a good deal of duplicate information that is held in the FDR Presidential Library, which is also part of the National Archives and Records Administration. This is not unusual, as it is often the case that government documents can be found in a number of different locations. It is also true that the discovery of the coded messages sent by the American POWs adds a significant new piece of evidence to the history of what became known as the “Katyn Massacre.” But the release of this new evidence does not change our fundamental understanding of the wartime aspects of this horrific story, and most of what the press has reported as “new”—at least with respect to the wartime records—has been available and written about for roughly 40 years. Had the press done its homework, or possessed a greater understanding of the Second World War, a more accurate description of what the release of these documents tells us would have emerged, and along with it, a deeper appreciation for the harsh realities faced by those—like the Polish people—caught up in the cruel vagaries of total war.
David Woolner is a Senior Fellow and Hyde Park Resident Historian for the Roosevelt Institute. He is currently writing a book entitled Cordell Hull, Anthony Eden and the Search for Anglo-American Cooperation, 1933-1938.